A songsmith transformed
New Orleans' heart, soul permeate performance

By Aaron Cohen
Special to the Tribune
Published February 19, 2007

Legendary New Orleans musician Allen Toussaint made one overt comment about Hurricane Katrina during his set Friday at the Old Town School of Folk Music. His words about the disaster being a "major booking agent in that it got everybody out of town" were perhaps a way of shining some optimism on a horrible situation. But he could also have been explaining his recent transformation as a live performer.

Though Toussaint wrote and produced a flood of hits for R&B, rock and country artists, in years past he seemed to prefer taking a supporting role onstage when booked alongside the dynamic singers who took the lead on those songs. But since the hurricane, he has asserted himself more as a performer, especially on last year's mutually invigorating collaboration with Elvis Costello, "The River in Reverse." Toussaint's audience at the packed Old Town School heard how well his sly nuances suited those compositions he penned.

"Mother-In-Law" was one example. The quiet and dignified Toussaint gave that song to the flamboyant Ernie K-Doe, who thrived on big festival stages. Yet when the tune's author revisited it Friday, his understated sense of humor and deft timing brought it home. Then he suddenly turned forceful on "A Certain Girl" before leading the audience in the surprisingly challenging novelty "Working in the Coal Mine."

These charged and comical trips to the New Orleans jukebox made the night's poignant moments all the more heart-rending. Just one dropped phrase during "Freedom for the Stallion" (a track featured on "River in Reverse"), summoned the pain of Katrina's aftermath in ways that speeches never could. Toussaint's childhood memories of visiting his Creole family became a moving introduction to "Southern Nights."

As much as Toussaint's voice revitalized his songbook, he also embodied a virtual history of New Orleans piano. And while his left hand summoned the city's famed parade marches, his right brought in sly George Gershwin quotes. Toussaint's strong block chords on "Fortune Teller" led a rhythmic call-and- response with drummer Herman LeBeaux's emphasis on his snare and cymbals before saxophonist Brian Cayolle turned the piece into a blues shuffle.

Reginald Robinson, who opened the concert, reminded Chicagoans once again how fortunate this city is to have this unique piano stylist. A thirtysomething advocate of early 20th Century ragtime, he continues to energize the idiom. Robinson's set featured originals he has been composing since his teens, which fit comfortably alongside his tribute to Scott Joplin.

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